AT&T said that Viaero, a small wireless network operator with around 110,000 customers, will build the FirstNet network for public-safety users across parts of rural Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming -- but AT&T suggested Viaero won't do that with equipment from China's Huawei.
"We are working with Viaero," AT&T said in response to questions on the topic from Light Reading. "Viaero will only be using equipment that we currently use in our US network, and we will complete a detailed inspection of each cell site prior to turning a site on air. This is standard across the work we are doing with rural providers."
While AT&T didn't directly address questions about Huawei equipment specifically, its response indicates that Viaero will only be able to purchase networking equipment for its FirstNet build from the likes of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, vendors that currently supply wireless equipment to AT&T.
Indeed, AT&T executives in the past have expressly stated their aversion to Huawei.
Nonetheless, the situation brings together two serious and diametrically opposed trends in the telecommunications space: a network that is dedicated to first responders like police officers and firefighters, and concerns among US regulators that the Chinese government could spy on Americans through Huawei's equipment.
On that second point, Viaero has admitted that Huawei supplies fully 80% of its existing network equipment, "including core, wireless, microwave and fiber." Indeed, as recently reported by Light Reading, Viaero submitted an application to the FCC to conduct tests with even more Huawei equipment.
However, in a filing with the FCC last year, Viaero executives said that the company has taken steps to prevent Huawei's equipment from being used for spying. "Viaero has consciously used a US-based vendor separate and distinct from Huawei for our firewalls, routers and switches," the company wrote. "No traffic gets in or out of our network without going through our US-based vendors routers and firewalls. This gives Viaero protection from any malicious act by Huawei or anybody else. We have reached out to several cybersecurity firms to further evaluate any vulnerabilities in our network."
Viaero executives have not responded to questions from Light Reading on the topic.
Huawei, of course, sits at the center of a global, geopolitical firestorm between the US and China. Amid a trade war between the two countries, US officials have been arguing both domestically and internationally that Huawei should be barred from the global 5G market because the Chinese government can use the company's equipment for international espionage. Huawei has loudly disputed those claims.
The issue has become so heated that the FCC recently proposed a program that would rip existing Huawei equipment out of US networks such as those from Viaero. However, the Rural Wireless Association -- the trade organization that represents companies like Viaero -- noted just this week that the FCC's "rip and replace" proposal is "an overly-simplified solution that might inadvertently cripple basic communications starting in early 2020."
The issue of Chinese espionage is front-and-center for FirstNet, which is the federal entity charged with building a secure, nationwide wireless network for public-safety agencies including police and firefighters. AT&T is FirstNet's network partner, and has been charged with building FirstNet's 700MHz network nationwide. Public-safety users get first dibs on the network, but AT&T customers can use it when it's not being used by police and other first responders.
AT&T is reportedly required to use other providers to construct the FirstNet network in rural areas. Already AT&T said it will pay ATN International's Commnet Wireless $167.5 million to build and maintain its wireless network in the Southwestern US, including FirstNet.